Thursday, July 30, 2020

What Color is Your Mental Parachute?

Aphantasia and Occupational Choice

NOTE: This isn't a real test of visual imagery. Click HERE for the Simple Aphantasia Test, which assesses whether (and how well) you can imagine pictures in your mind's eye.

Do you prefer to learn by studying material that is visual, auditory, verbal (reading/writing), or kinesthetic (“by doing”) in nature? A massive educational industry has promoted the idea of distinct “learning styles” based on preference for one of these four modalities (take the VARK!). This neuromyth has been thoroughly debunked (see this FAQ).

But we humans clearly vary in our cognitive strengths, and this in turn influences our choice of career. This should come as no surprise.

A recent study queried the occupational choices of self-selected populations of people at the extremes of visual imagery abilities: those with Aphantasia (n=993 male/981 female) or Hyperphantasia (n=65 male/132 female). This was assessed by their scores on the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ). There was also a control group with average scores on the VVIQ, but they were poorly matched on age and education.

Fig. 4 (Zeman et al., 2020). Percentage of participants with aphantasia and hyperphantasia reporting their occupation as being:
1 = Management, 2 = Business and financial; 3 = Computer and mathematical/Life, physical, social science; 4 = Education, training, and library; 5 = Arts, design, entertainment, sports and media; 6 = Healthcare, practitioners and technical.

As expected, people with fantastic visual imagery were more likely to be in arts, design, entertainment, and media, as well as sports (an excellent ability to imagine a pole vault or swing a bat would be very helpful). People with poor to no visual imagery were more likely to choose a scientific or mathematical occupation. These categories are rather broad, however. For instance, “media” includes print media. And artists and photographers with Aphantasia certainly do exist.

The study had a number of limitations, e.g. washing out individual differences and relying on introspection for rating visual imagery ability (as noted by the authors). There are more objective ways to test for imagery, but these involve in-person visits. Although the authors were circumspect in the Discussion, they were a bit splashy in the title of their paper (Phantasia–The Psychological Significance Of Lifelong Visual Imagery Vivdness Extremes). And the condition of “Aphantasia” existed long before it was named and popularized. But these researchers have caught the imagination of the general public, so to speak:
The delineation of these forms of extreme imagery also clarifies a vital distinction between imagery and imagination: people with aphantasia–who include the geneticist Craig Venter, the neurologist Oliver Sacks and the creator of Firefox, Blake Ross–can be richly imaginative, as visualisation is only one element of this more complex capacity to represent, reshape and reconceive things in their absence.


Zeman A, Milton F, Della Sala S, Dewar M, Frayling T, Gaddum J, Hattersley A, Heuerman-Williamson B, Jones K, MacKisack M, Winlove C. (2020). Phantasia–The Psychological Significance Of Lifelong Visual Imagery Vivdness Extremes. Cortex. 2020 May 4; S0010-9452(20)30140-4.

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